Skip to content Skip to navigation

Anne Lister

19th century English woman whose coded diaries detail her romantic and sexual relations with women and a social circle in which covert lesbian relationships were frequent.

LHMP entry

Clark presents the early 19th century example of Anne Lister, not only as a fairly unambiguous example of lesbian identity--despite never using that term for herself--but as an illustration of the function of representation and agency in the history of sexuality. A contradiction of sorts to the social constructionist position that sexual identities are shaped or even determined by the surrounding societal discourse, rather than by the personal experience of desire.

The chapter opens with a tantalizing personal history that suggests, but never clearly demonstrates, lesbian possibilities. In 1722, Ann Carrack, a 30-year-old spinster set up in business as a milliner in London with Mary Erick. They rented a shop together and lived together above the shop. Several years later, they moved together to another location. After 7 years sharing a business and living quarters, they parted: Ann to work as a needlewoman and Mary to set up a shop in Chelsea. But 10 years after that, Ann resumed the partnership, moving in with Mary in Chesea.

Chapter 1 - Thinking Sex: Knowledge, Opacity, History

Preface

Early Modern England (16-17th century) was developing a vocabulary and symbology to describe and express intimacy between women and female non-normative sexuality. This was taking place in various genres, including travel narratives, medical texts, and works of marital advice. At the same time, women were developing an evasive coded language to express such desires in their own lives. In this context, Sappho was invoked not only as a symbol of female lyricism, but also to represent and make reference to erotic bonds between women.

Turning from literary descriptions of Romantic Friendship to how the concept was reflected in real life (although the two are hard to separate entirely), Faderman comments on how modern scholars seem to find it even harder to accept the nature of the latter than the former. Correspondence, such as that between Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to Anne Wortley is filled with expressions of love, esteem, and protestations of devotion.

Evidently the fame of the Ladies of Llangollen was such that it could induce even a male poet of Wordsworth’s fame to confine himself to the themes of romantic friendship. But the other male authors in this group wallow in the images of the mostrous lesbian seductress and the joys of sensationalistic lesbian decadence. The female authors are quite mixed: a satirical sterotype of a “mannish” lesbian, a diary with remarkably candid discussions of erotic relations between women, and a poem on the usual romantic themes.

The paper opens with a consideration of the use of the term “queer” in modern academia, combined with a more literal meaning indicating deviance from the norm. But then it dives into a somewhat unusual use of the word in the diaries of Anne Lister (1791-1840) who appears to use “queer” as a name for female genitalia—a use that doesn’t seem to have a clear origin or parallels.

In February, Anne strikes up a new friendship with a Miss Pickford whom she begins to suspect shares her inclinations with regard to her close friend Miss Threlfall. Like Anne, the neighbors comment on Miss Pickford for being an intellectual and somewhat masculine in effect. They nickname her Frank. In conversation, Anne makes coded references to subjects and authors to sound her out on sexual topics.

It is clear from Marianne's letters and descriptions of her activities that she has been making new friends, taking up new hobbies, and generally becoming less emotionally dependent on Anne. In the early part of the year, Anne is much concerned with managing the property she shares with her aunt and uncle, taking over more of the control. Tib comes to visit in mid January and is in poor health. In a month Anne is wishing the visit were over already and is tired of Tib's drinking and snuff-taking.

Pages

Subscribe to Anne Lister
historical